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Arts & Culture

Tiki Culture Celebrated At San Diego Annual Festival

Artist Matt Reese’s home bar, dubbed The Lava Flow Inn, is decked out in tiki-themed art and Polynesian
 artifacts, in San Diego, Aug. 11, 2012.
Kinsee Morlan
Artist Matt Reese’s home bar, dubbed The Lava Flow Inn, is decked out in tiki-themed art and Polynesian artifacts, in San Diego, Aug. 11, 2012.
Tiki Culture Celebrated At San Diego Annual Festival
If you see a spike in Hawaiian shirts and pineapple-garnished drinks in San Diego this weekend, it's because of Tiki Oasis. The annual festival is the biggest tikiphile gathering in the world and represents the continuing resurgence of a growing subculture.

Musician Jason Lee of Jason Lee and the R.I.P Tides plays a short surf-guitar riff in his living room. He’s got a hat on today, but when he’s up on stage performing—as he does every year at the annual Tiki Oasis festival in San Diego—his bright bleach-blond hair is styled straight up into a foot-high spike that stands out in a crowd.

“Yeah, 10 years going strong and I still have a good hairline,” Lee said. “So, I feel lucky.”

Lee is a noticeable figure in the tiki subculture. It’s a growing community of people who celebrate the same Polynesian-based art, music, cocktails and cuisine that World War II soldiers were so smitten with. Because of its mid-century roots, the modern tiki movement has a discernible vintage aesthetic. It’s about escapism, fun and transporting yourself into an exotic environment, even if it happens to be your own backyard.


Lee helps set his exotic tiki scene with a fountain and Polynesian décor outside, and lots of tiki art and a looping Hawaiian movie from the 50s on his TV screen inside.

“Tiki culture is the postmodern mix of American Hawaiiana,” he said. “With the American industry booming with that in the 40s through 60s era, it makes it a fun little kitschy market. With us, inside of our own little subculture, it’s not a joke, I mean we take it seriously, but then it kind of is. I mean, it’s just fun and quirky and that’s what it is.”

Lee’s a member of the San Diego Tiki Carvers Association, a group that carves those recognizable tribal faces into big hunks of wood. Spotting a modern-day tiki sculpture in someone’s yard is a good way to confirm their membership as a fellow tikiphile.

“The big tiki I’ve had for a good 12, 13, 14 years. It’s palm log and it’s from the 50s or 60s,” said tiki artist Matt Reese. “I don’t think that you become a tikiphile, it seems like a natural evolution.”

Reese’s backyard opens up to reveal an exotic, somewhat quirky oasis. Down a steep flight of stairs through thick greenery and Pirates of the Caribbean-like scenes is The Lava Flow Inn, his tiki-themed home bar.


Reese is a vendor at Tiki Oasis every year and he describes the scene as whacky, but friendly and fun.

“Imagine, like, a Star Trek convention, like a Trekie convention, so there’s a certain nerd factor, but everyone’s in Hawaiian shirts and drinking rum drinks and nobody’s cooler than anyone else, there are no tough guys in tiki. It’s all very easy-going aloha-lifestyle. It’s like a retirement home for people that were in other subcultures like hardcore or punk rock,” he said.

Reese calls tiki culture a forgotten movement in American History. When 60s social-consciousness hit the scene, it nearly wiped out the relaxed escapism that tiki pioneers like Trader Vic and Steve Crane celebrated in their restaurants and bars. It wasn’t until the late 90s that people like Reese started breathing new life into the movement.

“I consider myself blessed because I can wear a Hawaiian shirt to work every day,” said Larry Baumann, owner and general manager of the Bali Hai Restaurant on Shelter Island in San Diego.

Unique to tiki culture is the importance of tropical-themed cocktails. Bali Hai plays host to the opening night of Tiki Oasis every year and is known as having one of the best Mai Tais around.

“I’m going to build one of our world-famous Mai Tais," said Baumann. "It’s the original Trader Vic’s recipe. It’s never been changed from the 1950s.”

Baumann says when Tiki Oasis comes to town, he still gets a lot of questions from his regulars who had no idea the subculture even existed.

“People say, what is it? I say, it’s Comic-Con for tiki freaks—from costumes and cocktails and food and just the tiki culture,” he said.

For those still curious about the culture, there’s a free, public tiki-themed art and car show and marketplace that runs through the weekend at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Mission Valley.